Monday, July 19, 2004

A Moral Argument Against Capital Punishment

Forget about the fact that any credible source will tell you that our system of capital punishment is flawed. It has been described as racist and one-sided, unfair and unequal. And those are just the words of our own politicians, who, by the way, continue to support it today. Forget about the argument against it that states the truth: It does not decrease capital crimes, has never been proven to do so, and most suspect that it never will.

My argument is simple. Capital punishment lowers our status as a morally just society and reduces us to our animalistic tendencies. I do not agree with capital punishment on the basis that a civilized society, as we see with countries like the UK and, dare I say, France, does not need to punish or protect by the way of death. There have been many arguments for capital punishment, ranging from the age old, "eye for an eye", to the current, more selfish, "Why should the taxpayer pay for a criminal to live in a prison for the rest of his or her life?"

I will take each of these two arguments separately.

First, let's take the "eye for an eye" argument. It always amazes me that we hear this argument most often from the Christian right wing, dubbed the "moral majority", who claim to be followers of the man known as Jesus Christ. I posed a simple question to someone who falls into this group. She grew up in private Christian schools, as did I, and we met a couple years ago at the company for which we both work. She frequently argued with me over the many issues facing our society today. I consider her a friend, so I didn't have much trouble asking her a very pointed question regarding her faith.

"Do you think that Jesus, if alive today, would support capital punishment?"

She responded that Jesus commented in his time that those under the control of the Roman government, namely the Jews of the time, were to follow all of the laws of the day. She drew a line from this statement to the current day, stating that, if capital punishment is on our law books today, we were obligated to follow the law and support it for this reason.

Now, I have two problems with this argument. Aside from the fact that I think it's just another way to twist your faith to support your ideals, as many of those who consider themselves religious do, there is much more to it than that.

First, I do not believe that Jesus told his followers to follow Roman law with the intention of having the statement used to support capital punishment. Regardless of whether one believes that Jesus was the son of any god, one must believe that the stories written about Jesus as a man certainly paint him as a good, loving man who, at least one time in his life, saved the life of a "sinner" who was destined for death at the hands of a mob.

Second, I do not believe that, if alive today in a country ruled by representative leadership, such as we have in the United States, he would encourage the People to vote for those who support capital punishment, especially when the end result of such a vote is the loss of human lives.

I believe that he made the statement because he wanted to protect the people of the day from the wrath they would incur at the hands of the Roman government for opposing Roman laws. The fact is, my friend supports capital punishment. Her religion, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many scholars, does not. If relying on the Old Testament alone, perhaps one could argue that the teaching is "an eye for an eye". Christians, however, are required to rely on the New Testament as well. Though most will deny this, there is a contradiction here. Jesus abandoned the old teaching and moved his followers forward, teaching them that there is more peace in forgiveness and speaking in terms of "cast[ing] the first stone" only if you are yourself without sin. Clearly he did not support the Jewish law of the day, which called for a woman to be stoned for the practice of adultery.

All that said, it does not concern me whether or not those that came before us supported capital punishment. My only concern is whether or not it is the moral thing to do.

Today, the second argument made for capital punishment supporters is much simpler. It is best expressed in a statement that I'm sure we have all heard before

"Why should I pay for someone to live in a prison for the rest of his or her life?"

First, if you are making this argument for capital offenders, the same argument can be made for all offenders. It is an argument based on selfishness. If the eighties was the me decade, then this is the me century. If we want to take a stance based on selfishness, we could also state that those in prison are there for their own reasons, not ours, and we therefore are not required to pay with our tax dollars for their mistakes. My response to this argument then is very simple. If you do not want to pay for someone to live in a prison, perhaps we should simply execute all those sent to prison for any crime. Certainly this would save the taxpayers billions each year on the cost of housing and feeding the ever-growing prison population, especially when the growing population is made up not of a majority capital offenders, but of a majority of lesser offenders. Drug users, drug dealers, car thieves, petty criminals, and many others are not considered capital offenders, yet they are still in prison for life choices that they made for themselves. Should we pay for these criminals to eat the food, bathe in the water, and wear the clothes for which our tax dollars will pay? Would it be simpler just to state that if you do not abide by our laws, your life is forfeit and you will be removed?

We know that the solution is not that simple, and I, for one, am thankful. We know that, as a society, we are required to pay for things, via our taxes dollars, for which we may wish we did not have to pay. Things like welfare may not be something that the average American wants to pay, but what is the other option? Would you prefer the selfish route, which entails a large percentage of our population living on the streets, or the more social route, which means that we must pay to get help to those desperately in need? Regardless of one's feelings on the current state of the welfare system, one must assume the responsibility of helping others in society when they are truly unable to help themselves. It is my opinion, therefore, that tax money is required to keep those who are dangerous or require imprisonment off the streets so that they can either be rehabilitated or simply kept away from society at large. I believe that the tax dollars spent on housing capital offenders rather than putting them to death is money well spent if it allows us to keep our decency as a society. There is no honor in killing human beings who are unarmed and posing no immediate, clear, and present danger to anyone outside of their cell.

Isn't it funny how the same people who argue for capital punishment are very often the same ones who would state that every life is precious when also arguing against a woman's right to choose? To be fair, at least the Catholics argue against the taking of any human life, regardless of whether society has deemed the life forfeit as a result of a capital crime. Though I disagree with them on many other issues, I greatly respect the Catholics for their stance on issues that concern the taking of human lives.

Let us stop referring to capital punishment as such. We should start telling things in this country the way that they really are. We should use true, factual terms to describe ideas and events. Capital punishment is State-sanctioned revenge, and vengeance, bred solely from hatred, is one of the oldest, ugliest, self-defeating emotions we humans can conjure up. That said, if we are so consumed by our own hatred for others, regardless of the nature of their crimes, that same hatred will begin to spill out of our hearts and into the streets of our cities and towns. Frankly, I think it already has.

In conclusion, capital punishment holds us in a time of uncivilized society where we are doomed to spend decades unless we act now to oppose its use. Other countries have made this same choice in the past and have chosen life over death. State-sanctioned murder is nothing more than a lowering of all the citizenry to the same level as those we are intent on eliminating. Just as we could not move forward as a society until slavery was abolished, and just as we cannot do so until we eliminate other discriminatory practices throughout this country, we will not move forward until we learn to respect every life, regardless of the crimes committed. Until that day comes, we will still remain in our own self-imposed dark age.